by Vinod Balagopal, Career Counsellor

Why do people feel like impostors if they have the education and job experience to do their work?

Impostor syndrome is a curious phenomenon. It is a condition that has various etiologies (origins) and also, something that is arrived at by eliminating other conditions that it doesn’t seem to belong to. However, this means that other phenomena that are not well understood may accidentally get lumped in as part of this too, making the root cause hard to pin down.

Breaking the term apart, you have two terms – impostor and syndrome.

Impostor = pretending to be someone else or someone you are not

Syndrome = a collection of symptoms

Some origins: When we are directed to do an activity that we don’t believe in ourselves, and are constantly pushed to continue that activity, we may conceptualise ourselves as acting out a part, like in a play. Even if we succeed at acting out that part, as judged by others including the ones pushing us, we don’t take ownership of the success or the skill that is used.

Consequently, when we are asked to perform that part again, or to repeatedly perform the part in a job situation, we don’t regard it as a positive experience.

A point that can sometimes amplify the feeling of anxiety and the thought of being an impostor is, when the term ‘expert’, is used. With a lot of things, it is really difficult to determine who’s really an expert because, even among experts, there’s not a lot of consensus to begin with.

It often seems to be fear-driven: fear of failing at a task, or fear of being somehow exposed as being less skilled and knowledgeable than people think us to be (or more accurately than we think others think us to be). Failing or disappointing people has the potential to affect very fundamental things in our lives, like acceptance by other people, keeping a job, and our own sense of power and mastery of something.

Once fear is at play, we already have some blocks to thinking clearly or planning what to do. The discomfort of feeling that fear, however, is a red flag that we need to pause and think about what is causing it, and why. From there we can hopefully take a step back and come up with some strategies for dealing with the fear.

If you think this is something affecting you at work, contact us for a chat.